Why is the City of Toronto continuing to ignore an economic and social ‘disaster of mammoth proportions’?
by Mike Beggs
“Nobody knows what’s going on.”
So says Toronto garage operator Peter Mandronis about the status of Municipal Licensing and Standard’s staff review of the new Vehicle-For-Hire Bylaw, under which the City licensed Uber and all other Private Transportation Companies (PTC’s) under a separate category. It’s now two years overdue.
Owner/operator Gerry Manley is among those who maintain, with the many concessions granted Uber and PTC’s under the new bylaw – including unlimited entry to the Toronto market, resulting in a massive oversupply of vehicles, with 53,000 PTC’s and counting – the City has created, “a disaster of mammoth proportions”, which must be addressed. However city hall, from Mayor John Tory’s office on down, has been totally incommunicado when it comes to Manley’s numerous and exhaustively researched letters of complaint, or any other industry inquiries.
One thing is certain, with the fall election approaching it seems Toronto politicians and bureaucrats don’t want to even consider taxi-related issues, notwithstanding the many scandals, court cases, safety concerns, and general bad press Uber has been associated with over the past two years. And the office of MLS Executive Director Tracey Cook has confirmed her Report won’t be seen before 2019.
“Everybody is wondering (what’s going on with the report),” says Mandronis, the owner of Peter’s Taxi. “They’re hanging us from the highest posts. I’ve been in business 57 years, with no thanks (from the City). No hope.”
For his part, Lucky 7 Taxi owner Lawrence Eisenberg believes, “There’ won’t be (any report). They will put it off until the taxi industry goes away.
“The way things are going now, they took my retirement and wiped it right out. I’ve spent 55 years in the taxi industry and I was never ashamed until now. The City did a number on us, everything they promised us was a lie,” he says.
He says conditions are terrible, with drivers “absolutely starving to death”, and plates values sitting at just $65,000 to $85,000 (from a high of $370,000), and plate rentals at $500 to $800 (down from $1,500 two years back).
“I’ve lost over 50 percent of the revenue from my leases,” he laments.
“Forget about it. (Lease rates are) less than 50 percent,” Mandronis concurs. “In the meantime, the expenses stay the same. We just struggle to cover our expenses, that’s all. I think everybody operates less cars.”
Of the delay in Cook’s Report, owner Al Moore suggests, “These people have messed up this industry so badly, they don’t know how to fix it.
“The recommendations for it are not being published, because if the word got out how incompetent half these politicians are, they’d be voted out of office.”
For her part, iTaxiworkers Association secretary Patricia Reilly predicts, “The quality of the sitting Council will be an election issue in the 2018 municipal election.”
Asked if he’s upset about the treatment of his industry at the hands of the Mayor and Council, Beck veteran Mohamed Idris responds, “Yeah, but what can you do about it. That’s politics. Everybody is the same.”
With a wife and three children, is this East African native considering a career change?
“Do you have something for me?” he snaps. “What are you going to go? We did the demonstration. We cried out loud and they don’t want to listen.”
Mandronis relates that, despite some worldwide backlash against Uber over the past two years, “there are no real signs of improvement” at the meter, in Toronto.
“Who gives a damn for the taxi industry?” he asks. “It’s the same with the riders. The cab drivers, they’re professionals and they do provide good service, but I guess the consumer is for Uber because it’s cheaper. But in the long run, they’re not cheaper sometimes, with surge pricing.”
Owner Andy Reti was shocked to hear rumblings that there are now upwards of 400 plates sitting on the shelf.
“That’s 10 percent of the licenses sitting on the shelf. What does that tell you?” he asks. “Here you are in your 70’s, and (your supposed taxi driver’s pension is) sitting on the shelf.
“We’re in dire straits, no ifs, ands, or buts.”
According to part-time Beck driver Mohamad Hossain, business is beyond bad, “but there’s no money for the Uber drivers either”, with the pie sliced so thinly.
“They should (limit) the taxis and Ubers to a certain number, so that they can accommodate customers and that’s it,” he offers. “The City doesn’t need that many cars.”
He says this oversupply has resulted in increased traffic congestion, pollution, and sexual assaults against Uber’s female passengers.
“Do you think (these Uber X drivers) care?” he adds. “They’re jamming the roads, stopping their vehicles anywhere they want, and there’s a preponderance of vehicles on the road roaming around, double parking with their flashers on. It has to be limited. This is now a zoo.”
Facing the same scenario, but even worse, five professional New York City drivers have taken their lives over the past several months. And, Taxi Action president Behrouz Khamseh says a lot of Toronto drivers and owners are “very depressed”, because of the fallout from the unlimited entry granted PTC’s. He lays that blame at the door of the Mayor.
“This man, he created a huge problem,” he alleges. “If one crazy person puts a stone in a hole, 100 smart people can’t get it out.
“This is the situation John Tory has created. How are you going to fix this up? Not until this guy isn’t in power. And (meanwhile the Police), they’re on our asses.”
Having witnessed plenty of lip service from city hall over the years, owner/operator Frank Kelly is discounting the value of Cook’s Report in advance, stating, “Whenever she brings it out, nothing is going to change.”
And at 68, he will keep right on driving, because, “John Tory made sure I can’t retire.”
However, he says business is, “not too bad.” He just plays the radio, and works eight to 10 hours per day, to make ends meet. And he suggests it goes a long way for cab drivers to get out of their cars and help customers with their groceries or luggage, and to keep their vehicle clean -- because you never know what that $5 run will turn into, next time around.
“People want clean cars and courteous drivers. And if you make a mistake, just suck it up and take $5 off the meter,” he says. “You’re not entitled to the business, you’ve got to earn it.
“I understand Uber is cheaper, but if people have a good experience they will go back to that experience.”
And while the industry remains divided on the prospects of legal action against the City, Kelly is one individual who says, “I will join any organization to try and move this industry forward.”
Former driver Peter McSherry is confident plate owners could still win a legal challenge, by claiming the City reneged on its promise that the plate would be their “taxi driver’s pension.”
“If we do this now, we can win. It’s a simple, simple thing,” he suggests. “It’s a demonstrable set of facts. We should be able to get a City employee, who gave that speech, to validate it. Some of them would have the integrity to tell the truth.”
However, Hossain reasons, “It can go to a law suit, but the damage is already done. (The passengers) say, ‘I’m getting a cheaper price,’ and that’s all they care about.
“The City, they don’t care about this taxi industry. They are taking the industry back.”
And while he has pointed out countless examples of unfairness, inequities, mistreatment of the taxi industry, and worse at the hands of Toronto city hall, over the past four decades Manley notes he has not seen one issue he has raised taken up by Toronto’s mainstream media.
“We’ve never been able to get media support over the years,” he says. “This PTC bylaw is destroying 10,000 lives in Toronto and their families, and I can’t get one story other than from Taxi News. They hold us in such disdain. We’re just not worthy of their attention.”
However, he was mildly encouraged by the phone call he received from a staff member in the Toronto Ombudsman’s Office, seeking documentation for the complaint he has filed surrounding Toronto’s taxi industry not being responded to on issues involving PTC’s and their drivers. He stresses that while there is no law requiring Councillors, or any other elected official to respond to such industry requests, “there is legislation requiring staff to respond.”
Manley sees even more potential in pursuing the federal government’s July 1, 2017 amendment to the Excise Tax Act, changing the definition of a taxi business to include all Private Transportation Companies and their drivers – meaning they are required to collect, and remit GST/HST. He asserts that with a federal statute legislating PTC’s as operating the same as a taxi business, municipal bylaws (like Toronto’s) that categorize and license them differently, “are now ultra vires, and therefore redundant and without effect.”
Ever since its enactment in July of 2016, Manley has maintained the VFH bylaw is full of, “unfairness, discrimination, and violations and conflicts of senior statutes.”
Furthermore, he advises his industry cohorts, “If you can get the right lawyer, there’s a fund available -- by a number of provisions, they will finance you.”
However, to this point, all talk about taking it to the courts has remained just that. And according to Reti, there are “no younger voices” who want to lead the industry in such an action.
“The poor people who bought plates for in excess of $300,000, they should be in a leadership position,” he suggests. “Where are these people?”